February Hometown Military Hero Thomas Rollins: 'Proud to be a servant'
In 1944 Thomas Rollins of Altamont was only 18 years old when he was “invited” to join the U.S. Army, during World War II. The teenager, one of nine children, had left school after completing the fifth grade to help his family survive the Great Depression. He began growing vegetables with a mule-pulled plow to feed his starving family, however when his induction letter arrived he never hesitated to serve his country.
Rollins boarded the Queen Elizabeth headed to France to fight Hitler’s army. On the way the ship was attacked by German U-Boats. The young soldiers were locked in their compartments while the ship was under attack, knowing that if their compartment was hit they would drown. “It was a night of fear — the worst I’ve ever had,” Rollins said. The ship made it through the fight and Rollins lived to serve in the 2nd Infantry Division and the 28th division. He saw action during the Battle of the Bulge in Luxemburg, helping to hold off the Germans for two days waiting for General George Patton’s Third Army to arrive.
“We slept in foxholes, on the street, wherever we could find a place to lay down. I didn’t sleep in a bed for a year!” Rollins exclaimed.
While in the Army, Rollins still helped provide for his mother and siblings by having the Army send his monthly pay check to his mother to keep them from starving back in Altamont.
“I was honored to serve and I still try to be a servant by educating children today. I have been going to schools for years. I share my experiences and encourage the students to work hard to make their dreams come true. It gives me such joy to know that my words give encouragement to the next generation. I recently had a little girl tell me that my story made her want to work even harder to reach her goals. The best investment anyone can make is in a child’s education,” Rollins said.
Rollins began working with young people when his children were small as a Little League Baseball coach and a Boy Scout leader with his son. He began making school presentations when his daughter was teaching elementary school. She was a 4th grade teacher for 30 years at Battlefield Elementary in Ft. Oglethorpe, GA. His son is now a professor at MTSU and is still teaching after 42 years.
“I am honored to receive this recognition, but I’m not a hero; I’m a servant. There are many younger men who served in Korea and Vietnam that are just a deserving of praise and honor and many of them never got the kind of respect they deserve. I’ve had boys I helped in Little League and Boy Scouts come back from Vietnam and tell me that I was their role model and thank me for the inspiration I gave them. I tell them that I am the one who should be thanking them. I want to see them get the honor they deserve,” Rollins stated.
After the war Rollin’s came back home and worked in the coal mines for a while and was nearly killed when one collapsed, and he and his wife Mary moved to Detroit where he worked for General Motors for about 8 or 9 years. “But I missed home and wanted to raise my children in Tennessee so when my daughter was old enough for kindergarten, I packed them all up and came home,” Rollins said. “When I got home I got into the nursery business, learning from the ‘old guys.’ It was kind of rough at first but I made a success of it and was able to send both my children to college debt free.
He and his wife of 70 years, Mary, still live in the house they purchased and completed when they returned from Detroit in the 1950s and Rollins says he is still proud to put on the uniform and share his experiences with the next generation.